While the rest of the country is high on ramen, Houstonians remain partial to Vietnamese noodle soups. The beef noodle soup called pho (pronounced "fah" not "foe") has been popular around here for decades. But this was the year that the spicy beef soup called bun bo Hue rose in popularity. Once we started experimenting, we had to try all of the other varieties of Vietnamese noodle soup in town. Here are the five best Vietnamese soups I tried this year that aren't pho:
1. Bun Bo Hue at Duc Chuong #1
The hippest noodle dish in Houston is the spicy beef soup called bun bo Hue. Bun bo Hue (pronounced "boon buh way") is simply called "bun bo" in the former royal capital city of Hue where it originated. The best place to try it is Duc Chuong. The soup stand has three outposts in Houston; all three serve only this one dish. The original at 11415 Bellaire is the best.
Bun bo Hue broth features beef and lemongrass seasoned with mam ruoc, the funky fermented Vietnamese shrimp paste. The bo, or beef, in Bun bo Hue is long-simmered, thinly sliced beef shank. (Some like it meltingly tender and some prefer it chewy.) There’s also pork in the form of a pig's foot, and slices of the Vietnamese pork loaf called cha lua jokingly known as "Vietnamese bologna."
2. Mi Quang at Banh Cuon Hoa
Mi quang (pronounced: me kwong) is an exalted noodle dish eaten on important occasions in the Quang province of Central Vietnam. It starts with wide egg noodles that have been tinted bright yellow with turmeric. In Central Vietnam, the noodles are only lightly wetted with a bone broth seasoned with shallot and black pepper.
But in the South Vietnamese version of the dish served at Banh Cuon Hoa, mi quang is served as a soup with lots of broth plus shrimp, pork slices, pork roll (the aforementioned Vietnamese bologna), pickled bamboo, and herbs. The bowl is decorated with a huge rice cracker studded with black sesame seeds. Banh Cuon Hoa serves the best-looking bowl of mi quang in the city. This outstanding Vietnamese noodle shop on Veteran's Memorial near Beltway 8 was also the first restaurant to serve the noodle rolls called banh cuon in Houston.
3. #2 at Phan Ky Hu Tieu Mi My Tho
Originally Cambodian, hu tieu (pronounced: hoo tee-u), is a wonderful soup that starts with a rich broth made from pork bones and dried shrimp. It’s served with chunks of cooked pork on the bone, pork liver slices, poached shrimp, fried garlic, and caramelized shallots. The herb plate includes lettuce leaves, sprouts, jalapeño slices, and lime quarters.
At Phan Ky, they serve hu tieu My Tho, the version from the Mekong Delta of Vietnam; other noodle shops in town offer hu tieu Nam Vang, the more famous style from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The #2 combines rice noodles and thick egg noodles. Phan Ky restaurant is also known for a dry version of the dish in which the noodles come on the side and are dipped in the soup as you eat so they don't get soggy. But there are also some fascinating extras available in the appetizer section—don’t miss the pork bones and spicy dipping sauce.
4. Mi Dac Biet at Mi Cay Tung
This Vietnamese noodle bowl features thin egg noodles with vegetables, roasted pork, and sliced pork liver. The dish comes with a sweet and spicy sauce and a light pork broth. You can order it all mixed together as a bowl of soup, or you can order it "dry," with the hot broth and special dipping sauce served in separate bowls.
Noodle lovers recommend the dry version because the noodles stay firm and chewy. To eat the dry version, you mix the noodles and other ingredients with the sauce and then dip the noodles in the broth as you eat them. The signature garnish at Mi Cay Tung is a housemade shrimp cracker with a whole shrimp in the middle.
5. Mi hoanh thanh at Cafe TH
Better known in English as wonton soup, this is the most approachable of the many Vietnamese soups. Kids love it. Cafe TH's mi hoanh thanh is served with noodles in a shrimp stock with shrimp and housemade dumplings. This also the easiest Vietnamese soup to make at home. You start with two dozen fresh heads-on shrimp. Peel the shrimp, put the shells and heads in a stock pot with fish sauce and water and make the broth. (Cafe TH and most other Vietnamese restaurants use a complex Vietnamese canh broth.) To make the wonton filling, grind the shrimp meat in the blender with some seasonings. (Save a few shrimp to float around in the bowl.) The dried egg noodles are available at most grocery stores and the elegant-looking wontons are actually just straight-out-of-the-package wonton wrappers with a wad of the seasoned ground shrimp folded up in the middle.
The location used to be the home of Thiem Hung sandwich shop. In 2006, Thiem Hung was purchased by new UH grad Minh Nguyen, who changed the name slightly to Cafe TH. He has since become one of the most well-loved restaurant owners in Houston.